Tag Archives: book signings

Fear the Turtle! (But Come Anyway!)

Just a quick reminder: I’ll be speaking at the University of Maryland–Jim Henson’s alma mater–this Friday at 6:00 p.m. at the Stamp Student Union Bookstore. It’s all part of the University’s parents’ weekend events, but whether you’re a UMD parent or UMD student or not, you’re welcome to come join the fun.  And did I tell you it’s free? Well, it is.

Which building is Stamp Student Union, you ask? It’s the one with this statue in front:

Statue.hensonumd

NYC Trip Report, Part 4 (Final Issue!)

After enjoying a brief moment of Zen with Washington Irving’s library card, I walked with Mark back down the curving staircase to the second floor. Here I met with Jonathan and Casey at the top of the marble stairs just outside the Member’s Room (you’re peeking through the door, just as I saw things, in the photo to the right), and chatted with several of the librarians and a number of patrons who had shown up early — including yet another charming member of the Irving family, who proudly showed me a fleur-de-lis ring of Washington Irving’s that she was wearing on her pinky. Meanwhile, staff whizzed in and out, setting the room up for their National Library Week reception (cake and lemonade, appropriately Spring-like fare).

It was a bit warm, and I have to embarassingly admit I’m something of a sweater — it didn’t help that I was wearing a suit (my Senate Uniform, I call it), but changing temperature from a Spring day outside to a temperature-regulated building usually turns my head shiny with perspiration, regardless. Fortunately, Jonathan and Casey went above and beyond and took good care of me — Jonathan pressed a cool glass of lemonade into my hand while Casey handed me a wad of paper napkins and dabbed a bit below my left eye — and like that, I was fine. I must say, having a posse with you is really cool.

A little after 2:00, Mark led me into the now-packed Member’s Room — a really great venue that allows some lucky audience members the luxury of sitting on couches and overstuffed chairs. Casey and Jonathan took seats discretely off to one side, and as I sat in a classy wingback, Mark stood at the central podium and gave me a very nice introduction.

I gave what I call my E! True Hollywood Story talk — it gives me a good opportunity to hit several of the high points of Irving’s life, with enough famous names and events to keep things really interesting (Look! Mary Shelley! And here’s Edgar Allan Poe! And now Martin Van Buren!). And to my delight, just as it had in Newport, the speech went over terrifically. (Want another look? Jonathan very kindly blogged about it himself over on his own website.)

And if you’d like, you can even hear audio of the entire thing right here. The NYSL has only just recently started putting its talks and presentations up on their website, and I’m very proud to be among their first three featured speakers.

As always, I had a wonderful time signing and talking with people afterwards. Interestingly, a number of folks were curious about my time in the U.S. Senate; I’m guessing that life in DC is as enigmatic to New Yorkers as life in New York is to us DC-ites — an iconic place that we can picture in our heads or see in the movies, but can’t imagine what it’s like to actually live or work there. I was having so much fun talking with everyone, in fact, that I completely missed having a piece of the cake they’d brought in for their National Library Week celebration.

It was 4:00 by the time we wrapped everything up, and I had a 5:05 train to catch at Penn Station. Jonathan graciously carried my suitcase (see what additional duties an agent shoulders?) as we headed down 79th Street in search of a cab. We finally managed to snag one on the corner at Fifth Avenue, pointed toward Central Park. I threw my bags in the back seat, then hugged (yes, hugged — I can’t help it, I’m a Westerner) Jonathan and Casey goodbye.

I made it back to Baltimore about two hours later than anticipated, thanks to a medical emergency on the Amtrak train directly in front of mine that had stopped on the tracks and required us to pull up next to it and load all of its passengers onto ours. Topping things off, I was then forced to detour about ten miles out of my way on my drive home when an accident — within spitting distance of my house — closed the road and turned me back around. At that point, I couldn’t get home fast enough.

I won’t leave you hanging. I made it home in one piece. And while New York was an unforgettable experience . . . man, was it nice to be back home. My wife took my things and sat me down at the bistro table in the kitchen and put a warm bowl of pasta fazoli in front of me. “Tell me all about!” she said.

I took a spoonful and smiled. Delicious. “Well,” I said, dabbing my mouth with the corner of a napkin, “I arrived at Penn Station in New York City on Friday afternoon, about an hour later than the 11:57 a.m. my train ticket had promised….”

NYC Trip Report, Part 3 (Collect them all!)

I awoke on Saturday morning at 9:45 a.m. or so. I was due to meet Casey (my editor) and Jonathan (my agent) for brunch at Cafe d’Alsace at 11:45, so I had plenty of time to shower, dress, pack and check out of the hotel before heading out to hail a cab. Given that it was Saturday morning instead of the Friday rush hour, I assumed I would have no trouble finding a cab.

I was wrong.

I came out the revolving door of the Omni, dragging my suitcase behind me, and saw that the entire length of 52nd street was lined with barricades, separating the sidewalk from the street. Pedestrians could move along the sidewalk, and traffic — what little there was of it — could move along the street, but no one could cross. I backtracked toward Fifth Avenue and ran into the same thing: the entire street was effectively blocked off.

I had completely forgotten the Pope was coming. New York City — or at least a good portion of it — was shut down.

I called Casey’s cellphone and left her a grumbly message, telling her the situation and letting her know I would do my best to get to the restaurant on time. Then I headed back down 52nd and crossed over to Park Avenue, planning to start a hike up the island toward 88th. Here I found things were moving just fine — apparently the police barricade didn’t extend this far. The roads and sidewalks were open, and cabbies were freely plying their trade up and down the streets. I hailed one easily, and stepped out of the cab only 10 minutes later on the corner of 88th Street and 2nd Avenue (did you see that? I just gave you an intersection rather than a street address. Drinks all around!)

Jonathan was standing outside waiting for me. While he may have been jetlagged — he had just come back from the London Book Fair the night before — he looked super cool and relaxed, with his sunglasses and a suit that struck just the right balance between business and casual (it was a “casual business” look, rather than the more stilted “business casual”…) We shook hands warmly — I hadn’t seen him in person in more than two years, either — and headed inside to grab a table while we waited for Casey, who came gliding in a few moments later.

We had a terrific conversation over omelettes, salmon benedict, and strawberry Belgian waffles (“But hold the strawberries,” Casey specified) and believe it or not, I actually did more listening than talking. No, really. It was fascinating to hear Casey explain how a project gets pitched in editorial meetings, to learn just how many queries Jonathan works his way through in a week, and to hear their mutually strong opinions on New Yorker magazine (the consensus: every New Yorker reads the magazine, and nearly every one of them yells back at it. Sort of like we in DC do to The McLaughlin Group).

It was only a little after 1:00 when we finished, so we decided to walk the twelve blocks over to the New York Society Library, where I was scheduled to speak at 2:15. The weather was beautiful, the Pope Barriers had been removed, and New Yorkers were bustling up and down the streets to find somewhere to enjoy their first real weekend of Spring sunshine. In no time, we were under the blue and white awning in front of the New York Society Library — a dignified but otherwise unassuming white brick building just east of Central Park. Head Librarian Mark Bartlett greeted us warmly and escorted us up to the newly-renovated Member’s Room where I’d be speaking.

Mark generously offered to store my suitcase and briefcase in his office, so I followed him up an elevator to one of the upper floors where we stowed my bags. But then, instead of taking me back to the elevator, Mark opened one of the low doors to the stacks and asked me to follow him.

Well, sure. I’m a sucker for stacks. When I was a Senate staffer, one of the real perks of my U.S. Senate badge was that (at that time, at least) I could get into the stacks of the Library of Congress — a dark, cool, bibliophile’s paradise. And now Mark was leading me back among the Society Library’s collection of old books. There was that great Old Book smell that I wish they could somehow bottle so I could spray it in my own house. Heck, I’d even wear it as cologne.

“I thought you might want to see this,” Mark said, steering me toward an enormous old leather-bound ledger lying open on a low table. “We just found it this morning.”

At the top of the ledger’s right-hand page, written in perfect cursive script, was the name WASHINGTON IRVING. Just below it, in pencil, was the date 1836. Running in neat rows down the page were the titles of books Irving had checked out, along with the dates he had checked them out and returned them. This was, in effect, Washington Irving’s library card.

I swallowed hard. “Can I touch it?” I asked, and Mark nodded, smiling.

I’ve thumbed through Irving’s own letters, held an 1819 original of The Sketch Book in my hands, and, thanks to friends at Historic Hudson Valley, even walked through his private rooms. Compared with those, the document before me was nothing special — it was merely Irving doing one of those mundane, day-to-day activities we all do: going to the library and checking out a book. Yet, for that very reason, it was one of those remarkable moments where your subject comes suddenly to life.

I took a deep breath, inhaling that wonderful leathery old smell. Then I rested my hand gently on the 170-year-old page.

To be concluded.

NYC Trip Report, Part 2

I now understand that New York cabdrivers — and New Yorkers in general, I guess — think of their city as a series of intersections rather than as street addresses. I get it. But at this particular moment, I still had a problem: namely, I didn’t know the cross-streets of my destination.

I tried again. “Forty Seven Fifth Avenue,” I said slowly, then took an old receipt out of my wallet, scribbled the address on the back of it, and held it up for the driver to see. “Like this.”

“Oh, forty-seven,” he said, nodding, as if I’d been speaking Dutch up until this point. “That’s down at Fifth and 12th, Greenwich Village. Why didn’t you say so?” Grrrr.

And off we went, down Fifth Avenue in Friday rush hour traffic, careening around stopped buses, scooting around pedestrians, and squeezing between slower traffic in lanes that didn’t exist. New York City landmarks rushed by on my right — the New York Public Library, the Empire State Building (I craned my neck out the window to look up at that one), the Flatiron Building — until suddenly we stopped in front of a beautiful brownstone walkup, directly across from an imposing old Presbyterian church. I had finally arrived at the Salmagundi Club — and thanks to a cabdriver who clearly had no respect for the laws of traffic, physics or gravity, I had arrived quickly, relatively in one piece, and with plenty of time to spare before my 6:00 talk.

I greeted the staff, and checked out the room where I’d be speaking, a classy Victorian-looking parlor with wing-backed chairs and antique furniture. I camped out on the front steps to wait for Casey, my Patient Editor, and struck up a conversation with a very nice gentleman, who eventually asked me what I was doing in New York. I told him I was speaking at the club in about ten minutes, and he suddenly beamed proudly — he said he had made the trip from uptown just to hear me talk, and asked if he could shake my hand and take a picture, a request that still rocks me back with disbelief. As I say often, it’s just me, and I can’t believe anyone wants a picture of themselves with me and my giant pumpkin head. But naturally, I obliged — and right on cue, with my lone fan snapping away, here came my editor, Casey, with her colleague, Tessa.

I hadn’t seen Casey in person since the Book Expo in Washington, DC, more than two years ago (at that time, I made what I’m sure was a great first impression, as I knocked down her rack of catalogues when I reached out to shake her hand). Since then, we had written, edited, and produced Washington Irving — an experience that, for the rest of our lives, inextricably links us together. And it was absolutely great to see her; Casey is one of those people who bubbles with enthusiasm about her projects and her authors, and she’s at once your biggest fan, best critic, and most patient counselor.

As I think any writer might attest, the best author-editor relationship is built on trust — you are, after all, putting yourself and your work completely in someone else’s hands — and I’ve trusted her completely since Day 1 of the project. But now she was here, in her dual role as my editor and as Arcade’s publicist, to see me talk about “our boy,” as we’ve always called Irving. In other words, she now was putting her trust in me to make us look good, and I wanted to do us proud. And just like that, I was nervous.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one. To her surprise, Casey was asked to introduce me to the crowd of 20 or so that had gathered in the parlor — an easy enough task when you know its coming, but somewhat daunting when you’re suddenly put on the spot. Still, Casey did a fine job of it, telling a story I’d not heard before about the first time my agent pitched the Washington Irving project to her. It was all so interesting — and her enthusiasm was so sincere — that by the time she called me to the podium, I’d completely forgotten to be nervous.

I spoke about twenty minutes, giving them an overview of Irving’s Salmagundi magazine, from which the club had taken its name in 1871, and wrapped up by talking about Irving’s life among artists. I took a number of questions afterwards — there were quite a few about Irving’s views on religion, money, and John Jacob Astor — then signed and spoke with people for another twenty minutes or so. Afterwards, Casey and I were then given a quick tour of the place, allowing us to gawk at the paintings in the stairwell and the old books in the library.

That evening, Casey took me to dinner at Fatty Crab, a funky Malaysian restaurant over in the Meatpacking District. (“Any place with the name ‘Fatty’ in it sounds good to me,” Casey had said earlier — a remark only the rail-thin Casey can make with impugnity.) The place was noisy, so we had to sit next to each other, rather than across from each other, to be heard and typically, we sat chatting until a waitress chased us away, declaring (quite fairly) that others were still waiting to be seated.

Next, the two of us walked over to the Terribly Fashionable Gansevoort Room, a rooftop bar and restaurant accessible only by an Exclusive Goodfellas Elevator, with a great view of the city, and a loud and trendy New York crowd. We took up a post on some low benches close enough to hear each other over the din, and remained in animated conversation until (once again) a server shooed us away, saying they needed the room for a private party. At that, I checked my watch and saw it was 11:45 p.m. There are times when this would have been an ideal time for a change of venue for another few hours — and I do believe Casey could have stayed out until the wee hours as it was. But I’d been up since 5:30 a.m. — and now, I was just plain tired.

We stumbled out into a New York night that was still vibrating with activity and hailed a cab. Casey provided a quick primer on the meaning of New York Geographical Terms like West Side and Upper East Side as we sped back up the island. Our cab driver had misheard my directions (in which I was very careful to say “52nd and Madison Avenue”) and dropped me off at the corner of Madison and 56th, but it was a beautiful night, and I didn’t mind the walk.

I unlocked to door to my room to find my bed turned down, soothing music and video playing on the television, and a chocolate chip cookie and bottle of Yoohoo on the desk. Point scored, Omni Berkshire. I called my wife to tell her good night (we always do that when one of us is on the road, no matter how late it might be), uncapped the Yoohoo, took a sip, and remembered why I don’t like Yoohoo. It tastes like Quik in water.

I reset the clock on the bedside — I wasn’t going to get stung by that again — and rolled up in the comforter. Day One of my New York Tour was over.

To be continued…

NYC Trip Report, Part 1

I arrived at Penn Station in New York City on Friday afternoon, about an hour later than the 11:57 a.m. my train ticket had promised. The weather was beautiful — the Pope was scheduled to arrive that weekend, and his advance team had obviously used his considerable connections to chase away the rain and cold and bring in temperatures in the 70s — so rather than hail a cab, I decided to walk the mile from Penn Station to my hotel, over on 52nd Street and Madison Avenue.

I was staying at the Omni Berkshire — a hotel that would normally be so far beyond my means that it would be all I could do to press my nose against the glass and look so forlorn that perhaps some symapthetic millionaire would take mercy on me — but I had lucked into an astonishingly reasonable rate, and strode into the place and checked in like I had never stayed anywhere else. I even authoritatively grabbed an apple from a nearby bowl as I walked to the elevator, then looked around to see if anyone was going to say anything about it. To my disappointment, no one had even noticed me owning the place with such decisiveness. Darn it.

I spent most of the afternoon just watching and wandering, and even lounged around in the room for a while (I figure if I’ve paid for it, I’m using it). I read for a while, then stood at my eighth floor window watching the people coming and going down on 52nd street (with Billy Joel providing a soundtrack for them in my head) — and all the while I was casually watching the bedside clock until it was time for me to start getting ready to change for my event. I was planning to start changing for my 6:00 p.m. talk at 4:30 or so, then catching a cab in front of the hotel at around 5:00. As I closed the blinds on my window, I just happened to glance at my watch and realized the clock in the room was thirty minutes slow. It wasn’t 4:30; it was already slightly after 5:00 p.m.

Now, understand that when it comes to arriving some place on time, I am the world’s biggest pain in the ass. If I have to be somewhere by 6:00 p.m., chances are good that I’d like to leave at 4:00 p.m., just in case weather, accident, or Godzilla attack impede my normal progress toward my destination. In most cases, it means I arrive an hour before I really need to be there; at other times, it’s paid off in spades, as I’ve hit a major traffic snarl on the DC beltway, and still made a train or airplane with room to spare. Right now, however, I was in a panic. I hadn’t changed — forget showering at this point — and it was Friday rush hour in New York City.

I dressed quickly, grabbed my briefcase containing my speech and my well-thumbed book, then sprinted out the front door of the hotel to hail a cab. Unfortunately, no cab traffic was moving on 52nd Street. The bellman regarded me with a shrug — “Rush hour, man,” he told me. “Maybe you’ll have better luck over on Fifth Avenue.”

I hustled over to Fifth, but things weren’t much better. Every cab that passed me was already occupied by passengers who seemed to look at me smugly as they went by. I briefly considered making a break for it on foot, but my destination was still 40 blocks away. Still, some progress was better than none, so I just started walking down Fifth Avenue, doing that crab-like walk where you’re looking sidelong for a cab while still moving in generally the direction you ultimately need to go.

Finally, one of those bike cabbies pulled up next to me and asked me in a thick voice where I was heading. “Forty-seven Fifth Avenue,” I told him — which, as I discovered later, was my first New York Rookie Error of the night.

“Hop in,” he told me, gesturing to the open back seat.

“How much?” I asked.

“Twenty bucks, flat rate,” he said. I now made my second rookie error of the night, and climbed into his cab seat. (“You’re the only person I know who’s actually ever taken one of those cabs,” my agent told me later, trying hard to ooze sympathy rather than sarcasm.)

Only minutes later, as we passed through Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, my cab driver asked me on which side of the street I wanted him to drop me off. As I looked at him stupidly, he pulled up on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 47th Street. “Here we are!” he beamed.

As I learned later, one does not provide cab drivers with actual street addresses. My request to be taken to 47 Fifth Avenue had been translated by his cabbie brain as “47th and Fifth Avenue” — a destination only about five blocks from where I’d started. While I might have my fits of laziness, even I can walk five blocks.

“No, no, no!” I told the driver, “I need 47 Fifth Avenue. Four-seven. On Fifth. Not 47th and Fifth.”

“Oh,” came the response. That was it.

“How much, then?” I asked, knowing full well what was coming.

“Twenty bucks, flat rate.”

“Yes, but you didn’t take me to my destination,” I said with a slight edge in my voice that I hoped said Don’t f**k with me.

It didn’t. “It’s 20 just to get in,” he told me blankly. Useless.

“This is a bill of goods,” I said, and angrily handed him my money. He offered to hail a cab for me “to make up for it.” I told him I didn’t want him to miss any other scandalous opportunities and to be on his way. “Whatever,” he shrugged, and off he went, standing in his pedals as he chugged away, in search of new victims.

With a visible black cloud over me, I began the crab-walk again, and finally spotted a minivan cab dropping a family off in front of a hotel. I ran over just as he was flicking on his “Out of Service” light and stuck my head in his window. “Any chance I can get a ride straight down Fifth Avenue?” I asked.

“Where you going?” he asked, lifting his cap slightly and rubbing the top of his head, the universal sign for You’re Really Putting Me Out.

“Salmagundi Club, 47 Fifth Avenue,” I said, clearly articulating each word.

“Forty-seventh and Fifth?” he said, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the intersection behind us. “That’s right there.”

My hands slowly curled into fists.

To be continued…

The City That Never Sleeps

I’m off to New York City tomorrow to appear at two different and really exciting venues — and if you’re in town, come on by.

On Friday evening at 6:15 p.m., I’ll be speaking at the Salmagundi Club, a hub for fine artists from New York and around the country. Originally formed as the New York Sketch Club in 1871, the Club’s present name — adopted a century ago — is a nod to Washington Irving’s satirical magazine, Salmagundi. I plan to talk about Irving’s Salmagundi — an ancestor of today’s MAD magazine — and a bit about Irving’s life among artists.

And if I have time afterwards, I plan on sampling some of the club’s famous Salmagundi Stew.

The Salmagundi Club is at 47 Fifth Avenue, in New York City. That’s their famous stairway in the pic up above to the right. I’ll try not to fall down it.

On Saturday at 2:00 p.m., I’ll be the keynote speaker for National Library Week over at the New York Society Library. Irving used this library while researching his mock History of New York and was later, briefly, a Trustee. While it’s changed locations several times in its history, it’s still the oldest library in the city of New York.

I’ll be giving one of my favorite talks, about Irving as the nation’s first true literary celebrity. You can see the announcement on their website over here. The event will be held in the Members’ Room — a really neat old room. The NYSL is located at 53 East 79th Street, in the city.

As an added bonus, I’ll be having dinner with my editor on Friday night (who keeps finding really interesting places to eat), and brunch with my editor and sure-to-be-jetlagged agent on Saturday morning. I’ll have a trip report up here later.

In Which I Meet Washington Irving (For Real!)

I had a most extraordinary experience up in Newport this week — so extraordinary that I’m not even certain I can convey it here in this blog. With your indulgence, though, I’ll see if I can at least give you a feel for what the past few days have been like. I’m not even going to begin to do it justice, so for everything you read, please ratchet it up by a factor of ten for the appropriate amount of awesomeness.

On Wednesday morning, I traveled with Sainted Wife Barb up to Newport, Rhode Island, to make an appearance at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. If you’re a bibliophile, you should make a pilgrimage to the Redwood at least once in your life, if not once a year, for it’s not only the oldest lending library in the United States, but also the one that’s been in continuous use the longest. It was established in 1747, and it’s a thing of beauty. The pic over there doesn’t even begin to convey how beautiful it is.

The oldest part of the library, the Harrison Room, is still crammed with books from the original collection–all there on the shelves for you to look at, marvel over, and think about what your well-read 18th century American wanted to see in his or her library: Encyclopedias. Jonathan Swift. Homer. Poetry. Every book a gem, and every one still in gorgeous shape. And what hangs above the shelves isn’t too shabby, either: original portraits — originals! — of notable Rhode Islanders by painters like Gilbert Stuart.

Well. Making an appearance in a room like that is an honor and a thrill, not to mention sphincter-clenching; it’s The Perfect Room, and you try your best to be worthy of it — and you’ve got almost 300 years of history staring down at you from the walls, reminding you not to embarrass them.

But there was another element in the mix at the Redwood that made this talk so important to me: members of Washington Irving’s family would be in attendance. In fact, I was in Newport at their invitation — an enormous honor, so I wanted to ensure I gave a talk that would give them, and all in attendance, a feel for just how remarkable their ancestor was and, I insist, still is. Barb had encouraged me — quite rightly — not to use any of the talks I had given in the past, and insisted I write a brand new set of remarks. So I had in hand what I called my E! True Hollywood Story speech. I knew it was going to run somewhat on the long side, but I hoped it would be informative enough, and funny enough, to keep everyone interested.

I had a crowd of nearly 100 jammed into the already intimate Harrison Room, and received a very nice introduction from, first, Cheryl Helms, the Library Director, and then from one of the editors of The Providence Journal (whose name, I am embarrassed to say, escapes me at the moment. I’ll edit this piece to insert it when I track it down.) I walked from the back of the room, through the crowd, to the podium, took a deep breath, and off I went.

…and it went even better than I had hoped. Because I had only finished my remarks the night before, I hadn’t had time for what I call a Deep Drill (where I read everything through in real time and “listen” to it) to determine whether it worked. I come from a speechwriting background, so I tend to script out everything — even what may sound like a casual aside — but my Deep Drill helps me determine where there may be dead air, where a joke has landed flat, or whether something has gone on too long — and right now, live on stage, I was Deep Drilling as I went along, getting a feel for the crowd as I talked, and deciding how to hit the beats as I approached them. And to my delight, it all went just fine. Laughs came in the right places, heads nodded or shook where I expected, the questions were interesting, and when I was finished, I got a really long, genuinely warm round of applause (as someone told me later, “We’re not a clapping crowd. We only clap when we mean it.”)

I signed and chatted for another thirty minutes or so, then after the crowd had gone, Barb and I got in our obscure rental car (an HHR? What the hell is that?) and followed Jan Gordon — head of Marketing for the library, who had also taken very good care of us — down Bellevue Avenue and over to the home of our host for the evening, the gentleman who had first approached the Redwood about inviting me to speak: Washington Irving.

Yes, for real.

In this case, it was Washington Irving III — or Rip, as everyone calls him — and he’s in a direct line of descent from Irving’s older brother, Ebenezer (since Washington Irving himself never had children, my first question to Rip upon meeting him — probably rather brusque, but I couldn’t help it — was “Which one do you come from?”) And what a charming gentleman, with an equally charming son (also Washington, though he goes by Knick, as in ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker.’ Cool, huh?).

Rip and Knick had very graciously put together what they called a “small” dinner party of about 3o guests, at his beautiful house, which he had carefully designed to reflect the contours and overall mood of Sunnyside, Irving’s home in New York. The food, conversation, and overall hospitality were all wonderful, the company exquisite.

And with their easy patter, gracious manners, and way of making everyone feel like the most important person at their house, it was obvious that Rip and Knick had the blood of Washington Irving coursing through their veins. If they’re any hint of what Irving was like in his day, it’s no wonder doors flew open for him to parlors around the world.

And staring down from his place of prominence over the fireplace, of course, was ‘Uncle Washie,’ in a beautiful Jarvis portrait that I had never seen before (“it was just cleaned,” Knick told me with a somewhat embarrassed laugh).

It was a true honor — it’s really the only word that carries the right amount of weight — to stand there in that house, under that portrait, and have the Irving family (I also met Rip’s brother Pierre, and his really acidly-funny wife, Kathy) tell me that my book had done their family proud. It was all at once humbling and enormously flattering, and it’s a moment of my life I’ll never forget.

And I think Washington Irving — who valued family perhaps more than anything else — would also have been enormously pleased to see just how much his own family is doing him proud. His name, reputation, and legacy are in good hands.

Home Court Advantage

Last night, I spoke to a crowd at my local library, right here in Beautiful Downtown Damascus, Maryland. There’s something just so nice about speaking in front of your home crowd. I was nervous — after all, you want to do well in your own neighborhood or you may never hear the end of it (and in my case, I live only a block from the library, so I didn’t want to botch things in my own back yard) — but I was also more relaxed than I’ve been in any other venue. Heck, I didn’t even dress up all that much, adopting my Casual Persona of boots, jeans, denim shirt and tie, and a suede vest and coat. For Damascus, that meant I fit right in — and was maybe even still a tad overdressed.

Our local Friends of the Library put on a good spread, and I had a good time talking with the crowd. Like most of the groups I speak with, audience members only knew Irving — if they knew him at all — through “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or “Rip Van Winkle.” That’s why I always love to see the reaction I get when I tell the stories behind Irving coining two terms that are forever linked with New York: “Gotham” and “Knickerbocker” (which can still be seen across the front of New York’s NBA team jerseys, albeit in its now more familiar abbreviated form, reading simple KNICKS.) Mouths hang open, and there’s usually a bit of laughter around the room. Good stuff. While I probably talked a bit too long (I always want people to feel they’re getting the most for their money), I got lots of good questions afterwards, which is always a good indicator of whether people were engaged.

My thanks to librarians Karen Miller and Chris Lundy for making the event so much fun. And a special thanks to my Damascus neighbors for coming out on a Thursday night. I appreciate it.

In Which I Make Like Art Linkletter

This afternoon I appeared at what I think is absolutely the toughest venue ever, before a crowd that made me more nervous than any I’ve ever spoken to. This was no gathering of mere academics. Nor was it a room full of graduate students or skeptical writing students. No, this group was far more intimidating than either of those.

This was a group of middle schoolers.

My daughter Madison is a sixth grader, and her reading class has been studying biographies this quarter, poring over various books, and learning the ins and outs of research (i.e primary vs. secondary sources, organization) as they put together their own profiles of famous people (while other tweeners were writing about Justin Timberlake, my daughter, ever the overachiever, chose Gandhi). Always my best promoter, Madison mentioned to her teacher that I had written a biography, so her teacher very graciously called and asked if I’d come up to the school and speak to their two sixth grade reading classes. I told her to pound sand, and hung up on her.

Ha! Ha! No, I kid. Actually, I said of course. But let me tell you, those of you out there who write Young Adult fiction, and thus are regularly asked to talk to the tweeners, my hat is off to you — for while I had an absolute blast, I was incredibly nervous. I mean, I didn’t wanna look like a complete dork in front of my own kid’s peers.

The teacher had very helpfully provided me with a few things she thought I should discuss — why I chose my particular topic, authorized vs. unauthorized biographies, primary vs. secondary sources — but I had only thirty minutes for each group, so I had to make certain I covered everything as clearly and as quickly as I could. No small task for a notorious windbag like me.

The kids filed into the media center and sat on the floor in front of my podium, crosslegged, poking, giggling, and chattering. A few who knew me waved to me — and I waved back, calling them by name which, to my surprise, seemed to make them The Cool Kids. At least for a moment.

So there I stood before at least sixty eager sixth graders and their teachers. I had brought some materials to show them, just to keep things interesting — a portrait of Irving, an original autograph (that one elicited audible ooooohs) and tried to engage with the group as much as I could. I asked if anyone could name a story by Irving (hands shot up all over the room, much to my delight — I’ve had times in a room full of adults when no one could name a story by Irving). I talked about all the famous people he knew (the story about Irving’s nanny getting George Washington to bless his namesake was a crowdpleaser). When I talked about Mary Shelley, I asked if anyone could name a book she wrote (this time, only my daughter raised her hand, and I laughingly called on her, the smartypants).

As I started talking about the process of writing, I showed them two of my notebooks where I write my rough notes out in longhand, in fountain pen. They had studied timelines as one way of organizing materials, so I pointed out that I had written the date 1848 at the top of the page, and then written a list of key events under that date — the very model of a timeline (who knew I took notes like a sixth grader?)

Then we talked tools. “What do you think is the most important tool a biographer has at his disposal when he’s working?” I asked.

“Pencils!” came one suggestion. “Internet!” said another. “Word!” said someone else (a reference to the Microsoft program, I think, and not the slang interjection. At least I hope not.)

“All good suggestions,” I said, “But it’s this.” I held up my library card. Every teacher nodded. Good. I had them.

And then I held up various books and asked if they would be considered primary or secondary sources — a good exercise, and I tripped up quite a few of them when I held up a volume of Irving’s stories collected by the Library of America.

“This is a book of Irving’s stories, published in the 1980s. Primary or secondary?”

“Primary?” came several scattered, though uncertain, voices.

“Primary?” I said incredulously. “But this is fiction.” I slapped the cover for emphasis. “Now: primary or secondary?”

“Secondary!” came considerably more voices, this time more certain.

“It’s by Irving, so it’s primary,” I said, and most of them laughed, finally getting it. A good moment.

Finally, I read a few brief passages, mainly of Irving’s own words, so the kids could get a feel for how funny, how frustrating, and how humble Irving could be, and there was applause all around when I finished. Little did I know the fun was just beginning.

“Any questions?” I said, looking around the room, hoping for just a split second that no one had anything. No such luck. Hands shot up all over the room.

And what questions they were — really, really good questions, unlike any an author is likely to get from an adult crowd. How big is Irving’s house? What did he die of? Did he invent Halloween? Was he a millionaire? These were all questions I could answer, but it was so refreshing to find out what they thought was interesting.

But to my surprise and delight, while they were interested in Irving, they were even more interested in the process of writing and selling books. How long did it take to write? Did you get to design the cover? How many did you sell? Did you meet anyone famous? How many pages was the first draft? And my absolute favorite: Is there anything that got cut out that you wish you could get back? (Answer: No, with only one or two exceptions. But more on that at some other time). All incredibly interesting, perceptive questions. And to my annoyance, the bell rang when it seemed we were just getting started.

A tough crowd? Tougher than you would think — but I loved every minute of it, and I’d do it again in a second. Provided I don’t embarrass my sixth grade daughter, that is.

The Yeti

Last year, as I was preparing for some of my first book signings, I did a bit of research on the Internets to look for some Really Useful Information that might guide me — you know, stuff like how long to speak, where inside the book you should sign, how long to take questions, whether you should wear pants, and so on. Some place — and now, I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember where — I came across a funny article about the unusual things people say at book signings. And near the top of the list was this corker: “I have lots of ideas for books — I’ll tell them to you, you write them, and we’ll split the profits.”

I’ve gotta admit, I’d heard something like this before, though it wasn’t directed at me, and it didn’t involve books per se. When I was shilling comic books back in the 1980s, I worked with a good friend who’d had some minor success writing and drawing underground comics. And every once in a while, I would spot him cornered in a remote section of the comic shop, with some eager comic fan enthusing in a highly-animated manner about his latest idea for a comic book character or scenario, always finishing by declaring it was a sure-fire hit, and explaining that it was now up to my friend to draw the darn thing so the two of them could split the millions of dollars the project was sure to rake in for its lucky publisher.

Now, that did sound a lot like the “Split The Profits” scenario I’d been warned about, but see, this was comics we’re talking about. We comics fans (yes, I’m one of them) tend to operate under our own unspoken set of rules and protocols. So approaching some other local writer/artist about a collaboration, while ballsy, didn’t strike me . . . well, as particularly ususual.

But that was comics; when it came to book signings, I was certain that the Split-The-Profiteer was, like the Yeti or Lochness Monster, either rumored to exist or spotted only once every decade in a fuzzy photograph. And I surely didn’t think that I would ever encounter one — I mean, come on, it’s just me, right?

I’m here to report the elusive Yeti exists — and I’ve seen it multiple times now. At nearly every event, I’ve been approached at some point by an enthusiastic aspiring writer who’s stood at the table and, even as I’m signing books for others, has described the subject of their proposed book with great gusto (I’m a non-fiction writer, so I don’t generally get people pitching their science fiction novels to me ). The best I can usually do is to smile and say, “Sounds like you know your subject really well — you’re the one who should write that!” And I mean it. I find their enthusiasm flattering. It’s flattering that they think I’m the one who could do their subject justice.

But listen, Split-the-Profiteers — and I say this with affection, because I know from experience your enthusiasm for your chosen subject: this is your project. It deserves your attention and work. Do your research. Organize your notes. Then write your book — because you can write your book a whole lot better than anyone else can.